The Buena Vista Social Club was a members club in Havana, Cuba, that held dances and musical activities, becoming a popular location for musicians to meet and play during the 1940s. In the 1990s, nearly 50 years after the club was closed, it inspired a recording made by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder with traditional Cuban musicians, some of whom were veterans who had performed at the club during the height of its popularity.
The recording, named Buena Vista Social Club after the Havana institution, became an international success, and the ensemble was encouraged to perform with a full line-up in Amsterdam in 1998. German director Wim Wenders captured the performance on film, followed by a second concert in Carnegie Hall, New York City for a documentary that included interviews with the musicians conducted in Havana. Wenders’ film, also called Buena Vista Social Club, was released to critical acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary feature and winning numerous accolades including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards.
The success of both the album and film sparked a revival of international interest in traditional Cuban music and Latin American music in general. Some of the Cuban performers later released well-received solo albums and recorded collaborations with international stars from different musical genres. The “Buena Vista Social Club” name became an umbrella term to describe these performances and releases, and has been likened to a brand label that encapsulates Cuba’s “musical golden age” between the 1930s and 1950s. The new success was fleeting for the most recognizable artists in the ensemble: Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer, who died at the ages of ninety-five, eighty-four, and seventy-eight respectively; Segundo and González in 2003, then Ferrer in 2005.
Several surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club, such as trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, laúd player Barbarito Torres and trombonist and conductor Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos currently tour worldwide, to popular acclaim, with new members such as the singer Carlos Calunga, virtuoso pianist Rolando Luna and occasionally the solo singer Omara Portuondo, as part of a 13 member band called Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
It was a fun evening, entirely in Spanish, and the audience was clearly enjoying the entertainment.